If you have all five starters back on a team that has won two straight AIAW titles, put together a 61-1 record over the past two seasons and made Cleveland, Miss. (pop. 15,000) the capital of women's basketball, you might sit back and enjoy life. Not Delta State. The Lady Statesmen have a mission. Last March, after they beat Immaculata in the AIAW finals 69-64, University President Kent Wyatt said, "Everyone agrees we're No. 1, but Immaculata still has a record we have to beat—three championships in a row [1972-74]." Toward that goal Delta State will again rely on All-Everything Lucy Harris, top scorer and rebounder on the silver medal winning U.S. Olympic team, two-time All-America and MVP at the nationals. Last year the 6'3", 185-pound Harris averaged 31.2 points and 15.1 rebounds a game—but she wasn't the whole show. Cornelia Ward averaged 11.9 points and shot 86% from the foul line, Captain Wanda Hairston pulled down 277 rebounds, Ramona Von Boeckman set a school record for assists with 335, and 4'11", 85-pound Debbie Brock saved four games with her razzle-dazzle ball handling.
The starting five—Coach Margaret Wade seldom goes to the bench—are called "The Cardiac Kids" because of their unnerving habit of coming from behind to win. But however they choose to do it, you can't knock success; in two years only Immaculata has beaten them—64-53, on Feb. 23, 1976, trivia fans. With the toughest schedule in the country, Delta State will again cause palpitations, but a third title is likely if Harris & Co. stay healthy.
And what of Immaculata? "I think for all of us, beating Delta State is a haunting dream," says Marianne Crawford Stanley, who led the Mighty Macs to the national finals the past two years. This season the graduated All-America is an assistant to Coach Cathy Rush, but everybody else has returned, and Immaculata will again be a powerhouse. The team's top players are senior Guard Mary Scharff, 6'4" Center Sandy Miller, who added weight and muscle in a summer training program, and 6'1" Forward Denise Burdick. All three averaged in double figures in Immaculata's run-and-gun attack, but now Rush has put in a new offense that emphasizes the high percentage shot. "It's not easy but I'm trying to slow them down so we can stay out of foul trouble," she says. Moreover, a deliberate attack would better suit the talents of the country's tallest woman player, 6'11" Gwen Bachman, who is thinking about enrolling at the suburban Philadelphia college in January. If Rush signs her (she is currently looking for a job. after graduating from junior college), then the Macs will be even mightier. Without Bachman, Immaculata could be overhauled by either Wayland Baptist or Tennessee Tech.
In the AIAW semifinals last March, Wayland Baptist, from the fiat, windy plains of Plainview, Texas, came within a hairbreadth of upsetting Delta State. The Flying Queens (they travel in three airplanes supplied by local banker Claude Hutcherson) shot 63% from the floor compared to 43% for Delta, but they got into foul trouble and lost 61-60. The defeat has not been forgotten and their gold-and-blue locker room is decorated with such inspirational messages as THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR LOOKING BACK, IT'S TIME FOR BEING STRONG. REMEMBER, WE MEET OUR OPPONENTS NOT THEIR REPUTATIONS and BUST THEIR BAZOOZAS. Not all signs are directed at the Lady Statesmen, but junior Leanne Waddell says, "The loss lit a fire under us. Now we have super team unity, and that was the little inch missing last year."
Also missing was a big center. No more. To the dismay of 50 other colleges, Coach Dean Weese acquired 6'3" Jill Rankin, who averaged 40 points per game at Phillips ( Texas) High School. Although she may be weak on defense, she can shoot with Harris and will probably be the second-highest scorer on a team that is loaded with sharpshooters. Leading the barrage will be All-America Breena Caldwell (16-point average), while sturdy 6'1" Marie Kocurek will be going for what she misses. Also returning on the tall, versatile squad are 5'11" Waddell. 5'10" Val Goodwin and 5'9" Leann Shieldknight. Two 5'10" freshmen all-staters from Texas, playmaker Kathy Harston and Elaine Schulte, are fitting nicely into Weese's two-platoon system, and the Flying Queens will again be strong defensively.
In his three years at the small coed Baptist college (1,000 enrollment), Weese has a 106-10 record, won two AAU titles and three National Women's Invitational crowns. However, in AIAW competition, the Flying Queens have had their wings clipped—fifth in 1974 and 1975 and third last season. "Now we have the talent to move up to No. 1," says Weese.
Tennessee Tech Coach Marynell Hutsell considers such talk nothing more than a tall Texas tale, because with the best outside shooters in the country she, too, is aiming for the top. Last season the Golden Eaglettes led the major colleges in scoring with a 90.1 average. "With us, people don't know who to guard," says Forward Pam Peek. The top four scorers are still around, led by Guard Gayle Burgess (20.3 points), six-foot Center Pam Cassity (15.1 and 17.6 rebounds). Peek (13.9) and Guard Kim Grizzle (11.6). Holdovers 6'5" Trish Bell and six-foot Janet Bowden add much-needed height inside, and with three promising freshmen all-staters, Coach Hutsell has one of the deepest teams in the country. Last year the Cookeville school had the nation's second-best record, 28-2 (losing to Delta State and William Penn), but the Golden Eaglettes are in a highly competitive region, and Eastern Kentucky, the University of Tennessee and Old Dominion could beat them.
On the West Coast, California State-Fullerton is in a similar fix; it will have to get past UCLA, California-Long Beach and vastly improved University of Nevada, Las Vegas to qualify for the nationals. However, U.S. Olympic Coach Billie Moore of Fullerton says, "We have all five starters back, more speed, greater depth and, always remember, we have Nancy Dunkle inside." The 6'2" Dunkle has scored 1,081 points in three years and averaged 12.2 rebounds. At center she is a match for Harris, and the Titans have the experience to make it to their fourth straight nationals.
Prospects should be gloomy in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where William Penn has lost All-Americas Jan Irby and Susan Kudrna, its No. 1 and No. 2 scorers the past three seasons, but Coach Bob Spencer is undaunted. "No one is indispensable," he says, "including the coach." Nonetheless, it helps to have Bonnie Foster, Renee Raub and Glenda Poock on hand. Although only Foster is over six feet, all three scored in double figures last season, and Poock (5'10") led the team in rebounds. Playmaker Brenda Dieckmann is also back, and five Iowa all-staters and a 5'11" transfer provide bench strength. Kansas State, Nebraska and Central Missouri will be William Penn's main contenders in the rugged Midwest region, but the First Ladies have a tradition of coming through in the clutch, finishing fourth, seventh and fourth in the nation in the past three years.
Mercer, a team that has never been ranked nationally, could be the surprise of the season. Coach Peggy Collins has all her starters back, including Olympian Cindy Brogdon, who averaged 30.1 points and 10.6 rebounds while breaking seven school records as a freshman. Last year the Macon (Ga.) university lacked height but Collins recruited 6'9" Kathleen McIntyre of Okeechobee, Fla. and 6'7" Dee Hazel, a 29-year-old mother of three who has not played basketball since graduating from high school in 1964. The towering, but far from polished, pair provides the tallest one-two punch in the country, and with the shooting ability of Brogdon the Teddy Bears could be far from cuddly.